Christians may hear from time to time the admonishment to “abstain from all appearances of evil“.
What you hear is a quotation of a passage from Paul’s first letter to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:22). Only, we usually hear a misquote of sorts, or rather a misuse of a quote.
“Abstain from all appearances of evil” is the most commonly used quotation of the passage, from the King James Bible. Many people shoot off this quote as if it were some sort of proof to Christians that they should not do something because it “looks bad” to others.
“So, okay, Mrs. Smart-Alec,” one might be saying. “What does the passage really say, and what are you trying to get away with doing?”
If I am looking for a loop hole, then shame on me. But equal shame to the man who judges unrighteously.
If we want to know what the passage says, we look at the passage in the original language of Greek. When we do, we see something like this:
ἀπὸ παντὸς εἴδους πονηροῦ ἀπέχεσθε
Most modern translators agree the wording looks something like this:
From every form of evil abstain.
So what is the difference, and why does it matter?
Simply put, the difference lies in saying that we are to avoid anything that looks bad versus saying that we are to avoid anything that is bad. It matters, because the incorrect passage is often used by people who wish to control the behavior of others based on their own private desires.
The idea runs that, as Paul said, if it appears evil, we should not do it. This reasoning would not make sense, because different things look evil to different people. In order to be consistent, we would have to do practically nothing, nothing at all, except maybe breathe.
Some people go as far as using this passage to condemn, among other things…
- playing card games because it looks like gambling
- not wearing your “Sunday Best” out the door to church because it looks like you’re just going out for milk
- drinking root beer because it looks like real beer
- or slow dancing at prom because it looks like you’re just another quarterback trying to get laid afterward.
This line of reasoning betrays a very manipulative, guilt-driven, judgmental attitude. Not only that, such a line of reasoning encourages such attitudes. To quote the passage in such a way, and then to use the passage in such a way, is to put the blame of all misunderstandings on the one sending the message, to trace all false judgments back to the one performing the action in question, to give everyone who judges falsely a free pass to judge as they wish.
When we abuse Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, we are sending fellow Christians the message that the burden of our misjudgments always lies on the one we are judging. The message we send people when we abuse the passage in such a way is, “If I see you doing something, and I assume that it’s really something else, it’s your fault for making me think you were doing something bad”. This runs against the grain of the Gospel’s teachings about judging others.
Does this mean we should do things that look bad on purpose? Of course not, for that is to create a stumbling block.
Does this mean it is fine to see how close we can get to sinning without actually sinning? Of course not, because then we are tempting ourselves.
Does this mean we should never consider how others perceive our actions? Of course not, for if someone is weak in spirit enough to judge falsely our motives should be to reconcile, not agitate.
If we shock someone with an action, it should be to provoke them to repentance, not malice. Ultimately, of course, that is their choice. But remember, Paul said he would even vow never to eat meat again if it removed a stumbling block among his brothers in Christ over what is clean to eat. As in the situation Paul had with the meat-given-to-idols controversy, he made his choice not because it was wrong to offend people, but because in that situation he found it better to relieve himself of what he knew was clean, just to keep unity together. He was not abiding by a command never to offend a fellow Christian. When we live faithfully, we cannot avoid offending people, even our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
Paul told the Thessalonicans to abstain from evil in all its forms, every time evil itself appears, every kind of evil. He was telling people to stay away from evil in any of the forms that it takes, not to stay away from things that someone else might assume is evil. If the teachings of Christ are clear that to judge unrighteousness judgement is wrong, it would not make sense to place such a burden on his followers like making them avoid anything anyone else might label “sinful”.
Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and to some it appeared evil.
Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, and to some he appeared evil.
Jesus didn’t ceremonially wash his hands before he ate.
Jesus appeared evil to a lot of “church-goers” of his time, to a lot of well-respected, well-versed gentlemen. Would we say it was the fault of Christ that he was labeled a drunkard and a glutton? His apostles had to tell him on at least one occasion, “don’t you know the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?”
Speaking of Jesus, some scholarship suggests that, if we read the passage in the context of the rest of the letter instead of rip it out and read it in isolation, Paul may actually quoting an oft-repeated saying of Jesus, and that verses 21-22 together make a proverb more along these lines:
“Test all things; hold tight to the good, but abstain from every false coinage.”
Like testing counterfeit money, we are to stay away from counterfeit teaching and faith. The warning is meant to caution us against the many bad forms, or false kinds. Once again, this is not an admonition to not do anything somebody might see as bad because they don’t see the whole picture. That is a moral problem that individual must resolve within his or her self.
Once again, I do not bring up this clarification in order to give license to us all to do as we bid without thinking of how others perceive us. I bring it up so that we ourselves do not use such a passage to guilt people into “obeying commandments of men as if they were the Word of God”.
If you are judging someone falsely, the onus is on you to judge rightly or not judge at all.
Abstain from all sin, and that includes judging unrighteously, which includes judging unrighteously in whatever form judging unrighteously appears.